It always starts the same, doesn’t it?
This year, I’m going to workout every day. I’m going to cook more and spend less money on takeout. I’m going to take the time to learn Spanish, lose 15 pounds, read a novel every week, call home on Sundays, train for a half marathon, stop checking work emails after 6pm. Whole 30! Dry January! Quit smoking!
Researchers out of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania suggest that “people are more likely to tackle their goals immediately following salient temporal landmarks,” which makes the start of the new year a perfect time to set new, fresh goals for themselves. (One of my favorite public radio voices, Shankar Vedantam, discusses this phenomenon with the Wharton researchers on this 5 minute All Things Considered clip.)
And yet…we rarely follow through. Nearly 40% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, but the sad reality is that less than 10% actually achieve those goals.
Making and following through on commitments is tricky for all of us, even those with a seemingly endless supply of self-control. Behavioral scientists, economists, psychologists, and an assortment of other researchers have spent significant time and brain power trying to help people commit to their New Year’s resolutions. We’ve gathered some of the experts’ tips and tricks to help you stay on track for a healthy, ambitious, and successful 2019.
Make your resolutions theme-based
Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and author of The Willpower Instinct, “…recommends reflecting on what changes would make you happiest, then picking a ‘theme’ for your year. That way, even if a particular habit doesn’t stick, your overarching intention will.
Take the theme of reducing stress, for example. You might try meditating and hate it. But, since your goal wasn’t meditate 10 minutes a day, you don’t have to abandon the resolution completely. Maybe you try yoga next.
Electing a unifying theme will also stimulate your brain to look for additional opportunities to advance your goal, said Dr. McGonigal, whereas narrowing yourself to a single behavior will cause your brain to ‘shut off once you check it off the list.’”
Practice piggybacking and temptation bundling
“Research points to the benefits of what’s called a “piggybacking” strategy. Piggybacking involves linking something you’d like to start doing regularly — like flossing or eating an apple a day — with something you already do regularly, like brushing your teeth or drinking a morning cup of coffee. In one small study, people attempting to kick-start a flossing habit were more successful when they were prompted to floss after brushing their teeth rather than vice versa.
Related to piggybacking is an idea my collaborators and I call temptation bundling. Temptation bundling means linking something you’d like to do more often with something indulgent that you crave…”
Think: you love Game of Thrones, but you feel guilty watching instead of spending time with family. Additionally, you want to go to the gym more frequently, so you decide to only watch Games of Thrones while you’re at the gym.
In a study with 151 participants who wanted to exercise more, people in the temptation bundling group (listening to an audio novel of their choice at the gym) visited the gym 27% more often than the people in the control group (just going to the gym). Though temptation bundling is imperfect, “…it may be a useful trick for changing behavior particularly when combined with other tactics.”
Change your surroundings
Breaking addictions can be some of the toughest resolutions to keep – smoking, alcohol, social media. The process of combatting any of these addictions is much more challenging psychologically than just saying I don’t think I’m going to do it anymore.
“One solution? Changing your surroundings to best set yourself up for success. ‘Successful resolvers leverage their environment to help them,’ Norcross told TODAY. ‘They remove high-risk temptations from around the house and workplace, and they add in reminders and positive statements.’
If you’re trying to quit smoking, try not to keep cigarettes in the house, car, or your desk at work. Avoid situations where you might normally be tempted to smoke, and try replacing them with other habits. For instance, those who are used to smoking to relax might pick up meditation instead, Norcross said.”
There is no shortage of evidence-based suggestions from the social science fields to help you stick to your commitments. And, if you’ve already broken your resolution (it’s January 2…), there’s always next Monday/month/year!
Alison Lubin is a project coordinator at Motivate Lab, primarily focused on ongoing projects with faculty and students in Tennessee and Georgia. When she’s not at work, you can find her planning her next vacation or re-watching Parks and Rec for the millionth time.